Skip to content

The trouble with Whiplash

Whiplash-PosterI have very mixed feelings, to say the least, about Whiplash. As a former drummer and a jazz fan, I’m delighted by the existence of a feature film about jazz drumming, particularly one that attracts Academy Award nominations. But I hated reading the newspaper and magazine features that rehearsed all the tired old jokes and generalisations about drummers before going on to describe the film. And there’s a much more profound and serious reservation.

Perhaps I can explain it by going back 40-odd years to the time when I and a colleague at the Melody Maker, both of us drummers, although in my case no longer active, maintained a state of polite hostility over — to put it crudely — his preference for Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker and mine for Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. I’d grown up believing that jazz was music originated by African Americans and that Baby Dodds was a better drummer, and more significant to the history of jazz, than Gene Krupa, although much less celebrated, just as Duke Ellington was more important than Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie was more important than Harry James. Ditto Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. Although my colleague certainly wasn’t a racist — anything but, in fact — we found ourselves on opposite sides of a divide.

I think it was after I’d interviewed Elvin Jones for the paper in 1971 that the great man — and his wife, Keiko — read a dismissive remark Ginger Baker had made about him and issued a challenge to an old-fashioned drum battle, via the front page of the MM. It took place at the Lyceum, as part of a gig featuring Baker’s Air Force, but I didn’t go. I could understand Elvin’s motive — quite properly, he felt he deserved to be at least as famous as Baker — but I thought it was somehow demeaning for the man who played on “Chasin’ the Trane” to invite public measurement against the author of “Toad”.

Anyway, Whiplash reminded me of this because it is about the education of a young jazz drummer. And my problem is that the student drummer in question — like his brutally demanding teacher, the part for which J.K. Simmons is up for a best-supporting Oscar — is white, and idolises Buddy Rich. He is also being taught to play a cold, unfeeling kind of music that has nothing to do with jazz as I understand it — and reminds me very much of the sort of stuff the members of Rich’s own big band were trained to play.

The college band in which the young drummer tries to establish himself contains plenty of black musicians — trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists, a guitarist and a bassist. But it seems very strange to me that the four young men competing for the drum stool, the struggle around which the film revolves, are all white. (Just as strange is the fact that there are no women in the band — probably out of dramatic necessity, since otherwise the writer could not have given such foul-mouthed homophobic rantings to Simmons’s character.**)

Of course white drummers can play jazz with feeling and originality. I’ve always loved the work of Stan Levey, Shelly Manne, Phil Seamen, Paul Motian, Han Bennink and John Stevens, and that wholehearted admiration continues to be extended to the likes of Matt Wilson, Joey Baron, Steve Noble, Jeff Williams, Tom Skinner and others. They’re as far away from the template of Buddy Rich, a boorish show-off to whom technique was everything, as you could get.

It’s nice to think of today’s jazz world as being colour-blind. But I always felt that my inquiries had taught me where this music originated, and the answer was in the African diaspora, most particularly and obviously — although not at all exclusively — in the area of rhythm. So Elvin Jones and Tony Williams symbolised the kind of drumming I most admired, along with Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Frank Butler, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Pete La Roca and Sunny Murray. There was a principle involved, and an issue of authenticity.

We could argue about this, politely or rancorously, for a very long time. But to present jazz drumming to a cinema audience in the way Whiplash does seems to me implicitly regressive. It’s an affront to a continuing tradition embodied today by such brilliant African American players as Clarence Penn, Tyshawn Sorey, Marcus Gilmore, Brian Blade, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Harland and Jonathan Barber.

Damien Chazelle, the 29-year-old writer and director of Whiplash, studied drumming at a music college in an earlier phase of his life. Miles Teller, who plays the student, is a drummer. J.K. Simmons is also a musician, as we see in the film’s only musically satisfying sequence, when he plays piano with a rhythm section in a small club (making this viewer think: “Ah — some real jazz at last!”). So it gets most of the stuff right on a technical and atmospheric level. But Chazelle inserts so many absurd melodramatic twists into his plot — which, as others have said, closely resembles a jazz version of An Officer and a Gentleman and Rocky — that I couldn’t begin to take it seriously as a story. I could, however, take it seriously in the way it presents jazz to a general cinema audience.

Nowadays we look back at Hollywood’s earlier attempt to make a film about a jazz drummer, when Sal Mineo played the lead in The Gene Krupa Story in 1959, and think what crime it was that Max Roach and Art Blakey stood no chance of such recognition. It seems to me that with Whiplash, more than half a century later, we’re doing no better.

** Correction: Since I posted this blog, it’s been pointed out to me that a female musician does make a brief appearance in the college band.

Ronnie Milsap says goodbye

Ronnie MilsapIf you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville this Saturday night, go and see Ronnie Milsap at the Ryman Auditorium. He’s one of the great singers of the past half-century’s popular music, even though no one talks about him much any more. And, at the age of 71, he’s in the middle of what he’s decided will be his farewell tour.

Sadly, I’ll be 3,000 miles away. But I’m so glad I saw Milsap before his famous run of 40 No 1 country hits, which started in 1974. Nothing against his country records, of course. Some of them still sound great. But the night in 1971 when I saw him at TJ’s in Memphis, Tennessee, a musicians’ bar to which, at that time, you had to take your liquor in a brown bag, he was still in that state of grace to be found somewhere between country and southern R&B, with the balance tilted in favour of R&B.

It was a late night at the end of a long day, and I had a brown bag with me, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember that he had a terrific little four-piece band — what else, in a musicians’ hangout in Memphis 40-odd years ago? — including himself on piano. He also had, when heard in person, one of the great white soul voices, in a line of devout Ray Charles worshippers including Charlie Rich, Dan Penn and Troy Seals. The only specific song that I remember from the set is the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which was on the charts at the time, because it seemed such an improbable choice but worked so brilliantly.

As far as I can tell, he made no records that sounded much like the set he played that night. In 1966 he’d cut  “Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes” with the producer Huey P. Meaux for the Scepter label; released on Pye in the UK, it became a Northern Soul favourite. From the same year there’s a very nice version of an early Ashford and Simpson song, “When It Comes to My Baby”, produced by Stan Green.

All that later success on the country charts seemed to take the R&B edge off his voice, but he could still sing beautifully. Here’s an example: his smooth version of “Any Day Now”, one of Burt Bacharach’s finest. My favourite of his later recordings is the Grammy-winning “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)”, which I love no doubt partly because I was in the USA when it came out in the summer of 1985, cruising the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Washington DC  in a rented Buick.

* The picture — uncredited  sadly — is taken from a very interesting 2009 interview with Ronnie Milsap by Ken Norton Jr on Engine 145, a roots music blog (www.engine145.com).

Chris Spedding at the 100 Club

Chris Spedding“The first time I played here, the stage was over there,” Chris Spedding said, pointing to his right. “Anyone else here old enough to remember that?” None of Saturday night’s audience at the 100 Club put their hands up, but you can bet there were one or two who qualified.

I certainly did. In fact the first time I saw Chris Spedding was at 100 Oxford Street — the address from which the club drew its name — on the evening of my first day working for the Melody Maker in London, in September 1969. He was a new addition to the Mike Westbrook band, a cool guitarist with floppy black hair surrounded by a crew of variously dishevelled free-jazzers. He was 24 then, and looked about 16. Now he’s 70 and looks 50.

Saturday night’s gig was arranged as a launch of Joyland, his thirteenth solo album, in which he appears with a bunch of guests. The cast list gives an idea of the range of Spedding’s activities over the years: the actor Ian McShane (narrating the title track), Arthur Brown, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Marr, Robert Gordon, Andy Fraser, Glen Matlock and others.

I can’t think of another musician whose career could have gone in so many directions. His early bands included Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, the Jack Bruce Band and Sharks. Later he produced the Sex Pistols’ first demos, backed John Cale and Johnny Hallyday, and guested with the reformed Roxy Music. He was on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and appeared on Top of the Pops as a Womble, in costume. His playing that night with Mike Westbrook 45 years ago suggested that he might have an important part to play in the evolution of jazz guitar, in parallel with Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey. But when he had a hit single, it was with “Motorbikin'”, as traditional a slice of rock ‘n’ roll as you could find.

Saturday’s gig contained only one song from Joyland: “Message for Stella”, on which he was joined by the album’s co-producer: Steve Parsons, the elfin character known as Mr Snips in the days when they co-led Sharks. Back in the summer of 1974 Snips and Spedding asked me to produce their third album, but the band was already starting to disintegrate and I didn’t have the skills to hold them together during a series of fretful nights at Olympic Studios in Barnes. It was good to see Steve for the first time since then, his huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm intact: a proper English lead singer, ’70s-style.

For the rest of the set we heard Spedding with Malcolm Bruce — son of the late Jack — on bass guitar and Chris Page on drums, both of whom are members of Sons of Cream. The stripped-down trio lineup allowed plenty of room for the leader to demonstrate his mastery of an interesting custom-built guitar which looked like a Les Paul made out of distressed carbon-fire mesh, put through an old Fender amp, with no effects pedals and no bullshit involved.

Spedding always seemed to me a modest man, devoid of the rampant ego that distinguishes most guitar heroes. He never shows off but there’s always something worth hearing, often half-hidden in the folds and creases of the songs: a little train riff dying away on the fade of “Hey Porter”, or the pretty passing chords he inserted in the chorus of an otherwise straight reading of “Summertime Blues”. The most striking of the cover versions was a radically syncopated version of “Rip It Up”, and elsewhere he put the lightest of spin on classic rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll guitar stylings. His performance of the anthemic “Motorbikin'” sent a couple of leathered-up Ace Café types in the front row into ecstasies.

The new album is a different thing altogether, a potpourri of pop styles and ambiances, from a great spaghetti western instrumental with Johnny Marr (“Heisenberg”) to a subtle Lana Del Rey-style noir ballad called “I’m Your Sin”, performed with a new female singer from Los Angeles called Lane. He gets Ferry to whisper-croon a spooky unreleased Erasers song called “Gun Shaft City”, and there’s a version of Crispian St Peters’ “The Pied Piper”, with Andy Mackay on oboe and saxophones, that brings out the song’s inherent creepiness. “Shock Treatment”, with Andy Fraser on bass, has a great Parsons lyric — “Shame, shame, such adolescent behaviour / Listenin’ to the B-52s sure ain’t gonna save yer” — and the closing “Boom Shakka Boom” is distinguished by a greasy-quiffed guitar-and-bass sound that defines a certain kind of unreconstructed rock ‘n’ roll.

Like Spedding’s entire career, the record slides all over the place without making a permanent landing anywhere, and is the more interesting for that. When the stage moves, he moves with it, while remaining himself. He was always something different, and he still is.

The last of Kenny

Kenny Wheeler Songs for QuintetFor a while, at the beginning, I was put off by the seemingly flawless surface of Kenny Wheeler’s music. That swooping, soaring, almost frictionless lyricism that poured from his trumpet seemed too good to be true, and I couldn’t find the humanity in it. Eventually I began to comprehend the subtle nature of Kenny’s very personal conception and, having finally got the point, joined the many who admired him so greatly.

His death last September, at the age of 84, provoked mourning and tributes around the world. Then came the news that, nine months earlier, and already ailing, he had gone into a London studio to record a last album with four of his regular musical companions: the tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, the guitarist John Parricelli, the bassist Chris Laurence and the drummer Martin France.

That album, Songs for Quintet, is released this month on the ECM label, for whom he recorded on and off for 40 years, and we must thank the producers of the session, Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake, for the decision to take this final opportunity to capture Kenny’s spirit on record.

His strength was beginning to go, but the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that occasionally shows in his work — on flugelhorn only throughout the album’s nine pieces — never obstructs the music’s clarity or emotional impact. You would not want to miss his opening statement on “The Long Waiting”, a most elegant ballad, or the way he vaults into the theme of “Sly Eyes” over France’s parade-ground snare drum.

In any case, this is a record of a group playing Kenny’s tunes, so gorgeously stimulating for improvisers, rather than a showcase for the leader’s playing. One or two are familiar from earlier records, but all confirm the impression that other musicians will be exploring their glowing contours for many years to come. Here they draw a wonderful response from each of the musicians but in particular from Sulzmann, a collaborator for many years: a quiet presence with a gift for locating the essence of each composition and never playing a wasted note, he supports and sometimes takes the initiative in what may be a career-best performance.

As a graceful coda to a wonderful career, Songs for Quintet is not to be missed by anyone who ever fell under Kenny’s spell, however belatedly.

* The photograph of Kenny Wheeler was taken by Caroline Forbes at the Abbey Road studios during the Songs for Quintet sessions in December 2013 and appears in the album insert.

Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.

 

In the land of Sinatra and Dylan

In the early days of The Blue Moment, I published a poem called “The Cool School”. Roy Kelly, the poet in question, wrote this new one in San Francisco last summer, several months before the announcement that, on February 2, Bob Dylan will release an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, called Shadows in the Night, previewed on bobdylan.com by a version of “Full Moon and Empty Arms”.

 

AT THE END OF AMERICA

By Roy Kelly

 

At the end of America looking west

and thinking east, surrounded by

the sadness of leaving, thinking of voices

under the vastness of the endless sky

 

that rolls back across days and nights,

successions of darkness and light, so strange

and so ordinary, all the hours and miles to home.

And here fallen cloud like a gorgeous mountain range

 

rearing and roiling on top of this one, its lower

reaches of plump softness already flowing

white and thin, dispersed and sparse down

gullies and ravines as we contemplate going,

 

brooding and musing on a world already gone,

and this one, always coming to pass,

the radio voices always alive in the whenever moment

of listening, even if high school class

 

was where they entered your heart and soul.

And now someone with silver hair

looks back from every reflective surface,

leaving you wondering how he arrived there.

 

Looking west and east, imagining those voices

that began with actual people and are now a myth

that conjures a country and time, the emotional history

of every age their records grew up with:

 

Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, soundings from a cloud

that covers the waterfront of this and last century,

every past and every future in polar voices

that blow in the wind that comes to fly with me

 

at the end of America, looking forward

and back, remembering love’s strange rights and wrongs,

insignificant and wonderful under a continental sky,

and the blessed ordinary magic of songs.

Farewell to Tin Pan Alley

Denmark StreetTo live in London at the start of the 21st century is to enjoy a double-edged privilege. On the one hand there is access to a quite fantastic variety of creative activities and the energy that sustains them. On the other there is the widening gap between extreme affluence and the lives of ordinary people. The imminent fate of Denmark Street — London’s Tin Pan Alley — is where those two phenomena collide, with unhappy results.

For me, much of London’s remaining attraction lies in those places — a stretch of Berwick Street in Soho, the top end of Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, the northern extremity of Portobello Road in Notting Hill — where independent and often eccentric enterprises still create a village atmosphere consonant with local history. Sooner or later they’ll all be destroyed by creeping affluence. Denmark Street is the latest to go, about to be suffocated by the gentrificational impact of the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road, a few yards away.

The north side of the street — the side you can see in my photography, taken before Christmas — is to be remodelled by the landowner/developer, who intends to erect luxury apartments in its place. Among the casualties will be several excellent musical instrument shops and the celebrated 12 Bar Club, which is due to close in mid-January.

Separated by Charing Cross Road from the eastern fringe of Soho, Denmark Street was laid out in the 16th century and named after Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Princess Anne, who would reign as Queen of England from 1702-1707. Of the original 20 houses, completed by 1691, eight remain, apparently making it the only street in London to retain 17th century facades on both sides.

Just over 350ft long, in the 18th and 19th centuries its location placed it in close proximity to the “rookery” of St Giles, a warren of tenements notorious for wretched poverty and every kind of vice, commemorated in William Hogarth’s series of coruscating engravings, Beer Street and Gin Lane.

A young composer and song publisher named Lawrence Wright set up his office at No 19 in 1911, and founded the Melody Maker there in January 1926. The launch edition included pieces on “Gramophone Record Making”, “The Banjo in the Modern Dance Orchestra”, and “America’s Idea of English Jazz”. In his front-page mission statement, the new publication’s editor, Edgar Jackson, made a point of  thanking the composer Horatio Nicholls — described as “one of the finest and most popular composers of lighter music, not only in England, but throughout the world” — for “allowing us the privilege of publishing his photograph”. Horatio Nicholls was, in fact, the nom de plume of Lawrence Wright.

Soon Wright’s neighbours included Rose Morris, Campbell Connelly and a small host of other publishers, including the London office of Irving Mills, publisher of Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington. In 1952 the promoter Maurice Kinn founded the New Musical Express at No 5, and two years later the NME began compiling the UK’s first singles chart, a sign of the shift away from the sheet music sales that had hitherto provided the favoured measurement of popularity. Southern Music, Essex Music and Dick James Music were other publishers with addresses in a street that became known as Tin Pan Alley (a name first applied half a century earlier, for similar reasons, to a stretch of West 28th Street in Manhattan).

By the 1960s a number of rehearsal rooms and recording studios had been opened. Regent Sound, at No 4, was where the Rolling Stones recorded “Not Fade Away”, their first big hit, and the whole of their first album. The Gioconda coffee bar at No 9 was a favourite meeting place for scuffling young musicians.

My own memories of Denmark Street towards the end of its heyday include a cup of coffee at the Gioconda with Elton John, who was contracted to Dick James Music and had just recorded what would be his breakthrough album, and a visit one afternoon in August 1970 to a cramped rehearsal room to hear a band called Osibisa. A collection of musicians from Ghana, Nigeria, Trinidad, Grenada and Antigua led by the saxophonist Teddy Osei, they were about to do for African music what Santana had done for Latin music, fusing it with rock in a way that made it highly palatable to young white audiences. Their potential was unmistakeable, and I wrote something about them in the MM. By the time I paid them another visit, six months later, they had released a highly successful debut album and played a gig at Eton College.

In the 1990s there was another reason to visit Denmark Street when my late friend Sean Body turned the ground floor of No 4 into Helter Skelter, a wonderful shop devoted to books about music, new and second-hand. Like Sportspages, an equally unique establishment 100 yards down Charing Cross Road, it would not survive the impact of online retailing.

The 12-Bar opened in 1994 in premises built in 1635 for use as a stables; its audiences have witnessed performances by Bert Jansch, Joanna Newsom, Jeff Buckley, Robyn Hitchcock, K.T. Tunstall, Seasick Steve and many others. Among its last gigs, on January 7, will be the “minimum R&B” of the Falling Leaves.

Rose Morris, amazingly, is still at No 10 and, being on the south side, might even be around to celebrate the centenary of its arrival in the street in 2019. I don’t suppose it matters much that the current proprietors of the restaurant next door, now called La Giaconda, can’t spell their own history.

In this very interesting piece on his blog, The Great Wen, Peter Watts spoke in August to the developer, Lawrence Kirschel of Consolidated Development, who made nice noises about respecting the street’s traditions but whose plans for a performance space and for erecting statues of famous Tin Pan Alley names do not encourage optimism. I think I’d rather Denmark Street disappeared altogether — following another of Kirschel’s properties, the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, into oblivion — than be transformed into a miniature theme park.

2014: the best bits

Lisa Dwan The mouth belongs to the actress Lisa Dwan, the only thing visible in an otherwise completely blacked-out Duchess Theatre during her performance of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, staged in London at the beginning of the year (and later in New York). It was part of an evening of three short Beckett monologues, all delivered by Dwan. Footfall and Rockabye were marvellous but Not I was as close to music as speech can get: a rapid-fire 10 minutes carrying a phenomenal emotional charge. There were lots of good things this year, but nothing better than that.

LIVE MUSIC

1. Louis Moholo-Moholo Quartet (Cafe Oto, May)

2. Charles Lloyd’s Wild Man Suite (Barbican, November)

3. Caetano Veloso (Barbican, May)

4. Evan Parker + AMM (Cafe Oto, October)

5. City of Poets (Pizza Express, September)

6. Dylan Howe’s Subterranean (Warwick Arts Centre, October)

7. Daniel Humair Quartet (Berlin Jazz Festival, November)

8. Rowland Sutherland’s Enlightenment (Union Cafe, December)

9. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames (Ronnie Scott’s, April)

10. The Necks (Cafe Oto, October)

11. Whahay (Vortex, November)

12. Plaistow (Pizza Express, November)

13. Kokomo (Half Moon, Putney, August)

14. René Urtreger Trio (Timothy Taylor Gallery, June)

15. Mike & Kate Westbrook: Glad Day (St Giles in the Fields, February)

16. Allen Toussaint (Ronnie Scott’s, April)

17. Christian Wallumrød Ensemble (Vortex, February)

18. Aki Takase & Alexander von Schlippenbach: Celebrating Eric Dolphy (Berlin Jazz Festival, November)

19. Jan Garbarek + Hilliard Singers (Temple Church, November)

20. Keith Tippett Octet (Cafe Oto, February)

21. Gilad Atzmon Quartet + Sigamos Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s, August)

22. The Pop Group (Islington Assembly Hall, October)

23. Jason Moran/Robert Glasper piano duo (Festival Hall, November)

24. Nick Malcolm Quartet (Vortex, June)

25. Bill Frisell’s Guitar in the Space Age (Barbican, November)

NEW RECORDINGS

1. Ambrose Akinmusire: the imagined savior is far easier to paint (Blue Note)

2. Steve Lehman Octet: Mise en Abîme (Pi)

3. Hakon Stene: Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal (Huber)

4. Peter Hammill: …all that might have been… (Fie)

5.  Mark Turner Quartet: Lathe of Heaven (ECM)

6. FKA twigs: LP1 (Young Turks)

7. Cécile McLorin Salvant: WomanChild (Mack Avenue)

8. Billy Childs: Map to the Treasure (Masterworks)

9. Alexander Hawkins: Song Singular (Babel)

10. Rosanne Cash: The River & the Thread (Columbia)

11. Paul Bley: Play Blue (ECM)

12. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want (Dap-Tone)

13. Bobby Hutcherson: Enjoy the View (Blue Note)

14. Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)

15. Einstürzende Neubauten: Lament (Mute)

16. Bobby Wellins/Scottish NJO: Culloden Moor Suite (Spartacus)

17. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden: Last Dance (ECM)

18. Raymond McDonald & Marilyn Crispell: Parallel Moments (Babel)

19. Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer/Michael Janisch/Jeff Williams: First Meeting (Whirlwind)

20. Peirani & Parisien Duo Art: Belle Époque (ACT)

21. Ruben Blades: Tangos (Sunnyside)

22. Marc Ribot Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi)

23: John Zorn: Transmigration of the Magus (Tzadik)

24. Dom Coyote, Emily Barker & Ruben Engzell: Vena Portae (Humble Soul)

25. Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit: For the Blue Notes (Ogun)

ARCHIVE RECORDINGS

1. Bob Dylan: The Complete Basement Tapes (Columbia)

2. John Coltrane: Offering: The Complete Temple University Concert (Impulse)

3. Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics (Glitterbeat)

4. Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4: New York Concerts (Elemental)

5. Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Oliv + Familie (Emanem)

6. Krzysztof Komeda / Andrzej Trzaskowski: Jazz in Polish Cinema (Jazz on Film)

7. Various: The Bert Berns Story Vol 3: Hang on Sloopy (Ace)

8. Mose Allison: Complete Prestige Recordings 1957-59 (Fresh Sound)

9. Duke Ellington: Contrapuntal Riposte (Squatty Roo)

10. Roy Orbison: Mystery Girl Deluxe Edition (Sony Legacy)

11. Don Cherry: Modern Art / Stockholm 1977 (Mellotronen)

12. Miles Davis: At the Fillmore (Columbia)

13. Various: Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg (Ace)

14. Schlippenbach Trio: First Recordings (Trost)

15. Charles Lloyd: Manhattan Stories (Resonance)

16. Joe Harriott: Southern Horizons / Free Form / Abstract (Fresh Sound)

17. Evelyn “Champagne” King: Action (BBR)

18. Joe Harriott/Amancio D’Silva: Hum Dono (Vocalion)

19. Various: Cracking the Cosimo Code (Ace)

20. Abelardo Barroso & Orquesta Sensacion: Cha Cha Cha (World Circuit)

FILMS: NEW

1. Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu) (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

2. The Past (Le Passé) (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

3. Camille Claudel 1915 (dir. Bruno Dumont)

4. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlowski)

5. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

6. The Grandmaster (一代宗師) (dir. Wong Kar-Wai)

7. Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage) (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

8. Leviathan ( Левиафан) (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

9. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)

10. Get On Up (dir. Tate Taylor)

FILMS: DOCUMENTARY

Night Will Fall (dir. Andre Singer)

Finding Vivian Maier (dir. John Maloof & Charlie Siskel)

Bayou Maharajah (dir. Lily Keber)

FILMS: REVIVED

Far from Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam) (dir. Chris Marker with Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, 1967)

Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1968)

BOOKS: MUSIC

1. Marcus O’Dair: Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt (Serpent’s Tail)

2. Mark Ellen: Rock Stars Stole My Life (Hodder & Stoughton)

3. Colin Harper: Bathed in Lightning: John McLaughlin, the ’60s and the Emerald Beyond (Jawbone)

4. Rick Bragg: Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story (Canongate)

5. Harvey Kubernik: Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop & Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 (Santa Monica Press)

6. Richard Havers: Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression (Thames & Hudson)

7. Victor Maymudes & Jacob Maymudes: Another Side of Bob Dylan (St Martin’s Press)

8. David Stubbs: Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (Faber & Faber)

9. Joel Selvin: Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues (Counterpoint)

10. Steve Lowenthal: Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist (Chicago Review Press)

BOOKS: FICTION

Patrick Modiano: The Search Warrant (Collins Harvill)

BOOKS: POETRY

David Harsent: Fire Songs (Faber)

EXHIBITIONS

Late Turner: Painting Set Free (Tate Britain, London, September)

Anselm Kiefer (Royal Academy, London, October)

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (Tate Modern, April)

AND FINALLY…

One afternoon in October a bespectacled young man sat down at an upright piano on the concourse of St Pancras International station and played “The Girl From Ipanema” very slowly, as though he were just inventing it, very gently testing the harmonic structure, finding new angles from which to approach the melody. He followed it with a couple of choruses of gospel-blues, investigated with a similar sense of understatement and absolute freshness. Then he got up and walked away.

A Thousand Ancestors

A Thousand AncestorsThe picture of the oarsman was taken by the Costa Rican photographer Michelle Arcila, and is part of project called A Thousand Ancestors, conceived with her husband, the Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik, at their base in Brooklyn. The results are out now in a 12×12 box containing 10 of Arcila’s prints and a matching number of Opsvik’s short solo pieces for bass, organ and other instruments, included in both vinyl album and CD forms.

According to a piece on Opsvik’s excellent website (which also includes links to the music he makes in a group called Overseas with the saxophonist Tony Malaby, in a duo with the singer/songwriter Aaron Jennings, and with others), the individual pieces of music correspond to specific images. The artists describe it as “an exploration of family history and the continuing influence of ancestral narratives on the present generation.”

The aim, they say, is to “slow time for the observer, and allow him/her to perhaps uncover distant buried memories of their own during the encounter.” Here’s an example: an image and a piece titled “A Strange Gratitude”.

The images and the music are as easy and rewarding to appreciate separately as together. Arcila’s photographs — whether portraits, landscapes, interiors, or close-ups of flowers and graves — display a cool, poised vision that certainly encourages you to spend time examining them (here’s her Flickr gallery). Opsvik’s miniatures incorporate a certain amount of relatively gentle noisemaking while also featuring solo and overdubbed arco strings in passages of powerful lyricism, sometimes using systems-like structures, occasionally floating free. Like his partners’ photographs, they’re austere but approachable.

Both elements are strong on atmosphere. I’d sign Opsvik up for a film soundtrack tomorrow. And I might very well ask Arcila to shoot it, too.

* A Thousand Ancestors is released on Opsvik’s Loyal label. The details are on his website: eivindopsik.com.

Visions of A Love Supreme

A Love Supreme 1“Welcome to the London branch of the Church of St John Coltrane,” the writer, editor and concert promoter Paul Bradshaw said, introducing last night’s event at the Union Chapel, the loveliest of the city’s performance spaces, featuring Rowland Sutherland’s Enlightenment, a large-scale “re-envisioning” of A Love Supreme.

It was 50 years to the day since Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones settled into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record their masterpiece in a single session. Sutherland’s 90-minute version involved himself and 14 other musicians working their way through an unbroken sequence of episodes that sometimes took direct inspiration from the work in question and at others explored underlying or suggested tendencies, taking in and finding ways to use the implications of Coltrane’s music both before December 9, 1965 and in the further year and a half preceding his death.

To give an idea of the richness of the resources at band, here’s the personnel: Sutherland (flute, alto flute), Cleveland Watkiss and Juwon Ogungbe (voices), Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone), Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet), Kadialy Kouyate (kora), Ansuman Biswas (tamboura, santoor, conch, tablas, miscellaneous small percussion), Orphy Robinson (xylosynth), Pat Thomas (keyboard, electronics), Nikki Yeoh (piano), Yaron Stavi (double bass), Mark Mondesir (drums), Crispin Ade Egun Robinson, Dave Pattman, and Ronald Thomas (bata drums, voices).

The piece began quietly with the strings of the tamboura and the kora, evoking the cultural wellsprings — India, West Africa — from Coltrane drew as he drove his music forward through the ferment of the early 1960s. Ogunbe and Watkiss recited devotional verses, starting with words from the Hindu mystic Swami Satchidananda and later using lines adapted from the 69-line poem that Coltrane included on the sleeve of the original album (“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord…”). Watkiss scatted inventively and Ogunbe, alongside him in the chapel’s high pulpit, sang powerfully in Yoruba. Occasionally they were joined by the chants of the three bata drummers, lined up on the extreme right of the stage.

Even those who don’t get on with late Coltrane would have conceded that this ensemble brought not just passion but clarity to the methods the saxophonist used in the last months of his life, when he invited additional musicians to join the basic group (something he had been doing, in fact, since the celebrated 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard) in order to explore the possibilities of the musical equivalent of “speaking in tongues”. This was the development of a new (to the western world) language of ecstasy and catharsis, and it continues to divide opinion.

There were strikingly effective solos last night from a poised Yeoh, a ferocious Williamson, a wild Hutchings, a volcanic Mondesir, an entrancing Robinson and a cunning Thomas (who, as my friend Jody Gillett pointed out, “likes to keep the rest of them on their toes”), from Biswas on santoor (a small Indian cimbalom), and from Stavi, who produced an improvisation that fused Garrison’s suppleness with Charlie Haden’s spiritual power, provoking an ovation from the large and attentive audience.

Waves of energy surged back and forth across the stage, separated by passages of luminous serenity. A judicious pruning of 10 minutes or so might have done no harm, but even the most hardened atheist (that’s me) would have found it difficult to remain unmoved by the depth and intensity of these musicians’ creative response to one of jazz’s great cornerstones, sharing with us its undiminished power to inspire and uplift.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,112 other followers